One of the main problems that puts people off getting involved in supporting prisoners is a feeling of being intimidated about writing to a prisoner for the first time. It is very hard to write a letter to someone you don’t know: people find that they don’t know what to say, they feel there are things they can’t talk about, or think that prisoners won’t be interested in what they have to say. Well this is a problem most of us have had to get over, so we’ve drawn up some suggestions to help you. Obviously these aren’t rigid guidelines, and we don’t pretend to have solved all problems here. Different people will write different letters. hopefully they will be of some use.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Some prisons restict the number of letters a prisoner can write or receive, and they may have to buy stamps and envelopes: and prisoners aren’t millionaires. So don’t necessarily expect a reply to a card or letter. A lot of prisons allow stamps or and s.a.e to be included with a card or letter, but some don’t. Letters do also get stopped, read, delayed, ‘diverted’. If you suspect has been or will be nicked by the screws, you can send it Recorded delivery, which unfortunately costs a lot but then they have to open it in the prisoners presence. Also you should put a return address, not just so the prisoner can reply (!), but also because some prisons don’t allow letters without a return address. Of course it doesn’t have to be your address, but be careful using PO box numbers as some prisons don’t allow these either!
WRITING FOR THE FIRST TIME
Say who you are, and if it’s relevant that you’re from such and such a group. Some people reckon it’s better to be upfront about your politics as well, to give prisoners the choice to stay in contact with you or not. Say where you heard about them and their case.
The first letter can be reasonably short, maybe only a postcard. Obviously when you get to know people better you’ll have more to talk about.
If you are writing to a “framed” prisoner, and you believe them to be innocent, it helps to say so, as it gives people confidence to know that you believe them.
Some people, when they write to prisoners, are afraid to talking about their lives, what they are up to, thinking this may depress people banged up, especially prisoners with long sentences, or that they are not interested in your life. Although in some cases this may be true, on the whole a letter is the highpoint of the day for most prisoners. prison life is dead boring, and any news that livens it up, whether it’s about people they know or not, is generally welcome. Especially if you didn’t know them before they went to prison, they want to know about you, what your life is like etc. Use your sense, don’t write about anything that is likely to get a prisoner in shit with the screws, or get you or anyone else in trouble with the cops.
THEY’RE IN THERE FOR US, WE’RE OUT HERE FOR THEM
For people imprisoned from out movements and struggles it’s vital to keep them involved in the ongoing resistance – telling tham about actions, sending them magazines if they want them, discussing ideas ans strategies with them. Use your head though. Some people will just want to keep their head down till they get out.
This was adapted from a leaflet produced by the Anarchist Black Cross.
A few dos and don’ts on writing prisoners whose backgrounds/politics you may not know.
Do use common sense. Use a “neutral” address, such as a Post Office Box, for correspondence. Do not divulge sensitive personal information (i.e. your home address, phone number, credit card and bank details, people’s full names, etc.) to a prisoner, particularly one you have never dealt with before. This is for your security and that of the prisoner. Be aware that authorities often read these letters and sensitive information can get into the wrong hands. Occasionally, prisoners have misused this information as well. Do not send money or honor immediate requests for money.
Do think ahead. Research local prison regulations. Learn about the prisoner before writing. Make sure to put a return address on your envelope. When first writing to an incarcerated person make sure you ask them specifically what the rules are for writing letters, and make a careful note of them. No one under eighteen years of age should be writing a prisoner — again, this is for the prisoner’s security as well as the writer’s.
Do be forward and clear in your letter as well as your intentions. Say who you are, and if it’s relevant that you’re with an organization. Be upfront about your politics and say where you heard about the prisoners and her/his case. If you are interested in starting a pen-pal relationship and that is all, say so. Ask if they would like to correspond and if they’d like to discuss any topics, as well as what topics they don’t wish to discuss. Keep your first letter reasonably short and to the point.
Do be patient. Prisoners may not write back or may take awhile. They may occasionally sound cynical, angry or disinterested in their words — keep in mind many “supporters” or people who’ve written before may have stopped writing them, made promises/lied to them, or they just had a rough day and they’re venting that on paper. Responding to an angry letter with more anger is not helpful.
Do deal with the right channels. If a prisoner wants you to send a book, ask what channels their institution requires for that, or refer them to a Book-to-Prisoners project near their unit. If a prisoner is getting out in the next few weeks, do not offer your place to stay (no matter how desperate they sound) unless you have corresponded for a significant amount of time and are in contact with both a parole officer and a prison intermediary (e.g. prison chaplain). Even in cases like this, it is far more helpful to a prisoner to help them secure employment and develop a support base (whether that is through her/his church/mosque, family, friends, etc.) than to Chances are, there’s a legal process to be dealt with in cases like this and they need to be followed by both you and the prisoner. However, use your head and don’t land in a bad situation or one that will land the prisoner back in jail.
Do not make promises. Many well-meaning people write letters offering support to a prisoner, or make offers for help out of good will. Unfortunately, most never follow through and build false hope in a prisoner. This is not fair to them. If you’re writing, don’t make promises. Don’t offer to do a support campaign if you can’t make that time. Don’t offer to send items when you can’t afford it. Be honest. It’s best to start writing and keep it that way, at least until a relationship is established.
Do not romanticize prisons or prisoners. Many activists have ideas about who prisoners are, why they’re locked up, the system, etc. While it’s correct to have political clarity about incarceration and the nature of the criminal justice system, it is not correct to romanticize a prisoner, anything they might be locked up for (especially a “social crime”) and their lives. They’re people just like you, and have strengths and weaknesses. It is dangerous to assume that anyone (free or jailed) is able to overcome all their personal weaknesses, or be completely truthful, or is not dealing with the stressful situation they’re in in negative ways. Some are estranged from their families as a direct result of their own actions. Some may have learned manipulative behaviors over the years. Prisoners are people like you.
Do not discuss potentially illegal political action with a prisoner. Again, this is for your security and theirs. Prisoners have and can be implicated for outside action that violates the law and you should be mindful that, if authorities even find such information in the hands of prisoners, prisoners can face added time and harsh treatment.
Do not attempt to place political judgments on prisoners’ experiences. Some prisoners, out of desperation, write publications to get pen pals and may not agree completely with the views of the paper, but read it for information. Some prisoners have been converted to Christianity or are Muslims. Some have views that may be somewhat backward. Rather than attack a prisoner, it’s best to be polite, but firm, if there’s something you’d rather not discuss or find objectionable. Do not attack or insult a prisoner because of their religions, preferences or experiences. If the prisoner declares her/himself a white supremacist, you are well within your rights to explain your disagreements, encourage them to reconsider their views and discontinue the relationship; please be aware that several white supremacist gangs have ties to the outside from prison and it is smart not to get into insults or threats against such prisoners. Don’t send literature unless requested and be aware you don’t have to go with every request.